Apple recently introduced OS X “Lion“, with several new user interface elements and paradigms borrowed from the iOS operating system that powers the iPhone and iPad. One of the features that has generated the significant negative reaction from user interface blogs has been Launchpad. Launchpad looks very similar to the iOS app launcher, with a 2-D grid of application icons and folders. Several user interface experts have commented that this 2-D icon grid is a step “back” from more complex user interface paradigms for application organization and browsing.
At Physion Consulting, we’ve thought a lot about how to make browsing and organizing collections easier. In this case, I believe that Launchpad’s UI is actually a good idea. The issue is, fundamentally, whether flat or hierarchical organization is easier for a user.
Scientists (and software developers) tend to think in hierarchical organization models. Human working memory is often described as “7 ± 2″ items. In other words, classical psychophysics teaches us that we can keep about seven “things” in working memory at a time. This number of course varies with the task, the experience of the user with the task and many other factors, but the general principle stands. In a world with too many “things”, the human solution is often to categorize them to reduce the number of pieces of information needed at a time. When the number of categories gets large, we create categories of categories, etc.
Categories and categories of categories do not necessarily reflect the organization of the world. Rather they are a crutch to help humans reason about large groups of things. In the real world, relationships cut across category boundaries (files relate to more than one project, species may have more than one ancestor, etc.), making hierarchical organiation restrictive. Even when relationships are well modeled by hierarchy, finding existing data then requires the user to remember where in the hierarchy the data resides. If you’ve ever used Spotlight (or desktop search of your choice) or a Desktop full of files rather than searching through the nested folders on your hard drive, you’ve experienced the downside of hierarchical organization.
In this age of computer-aided workflows, why are we stuck with hierarchical systems? Why can’t we delegate some of the organization to the computer? If the operating system can keep track of apps we use frequently, files belonging to projects etc. (and it can), why don’t we let it present a flat, simple representation of those groups?
In Ovation, we take a similar approach. We let you view data in any arbitrary hierarchy, but we also let you view the flat list of data that matches a query. As you refine and change the query, the list of matchin items updates automatically. Thus, rather than thinking of where your data sits in a hierarcy of folders, you can think about what data you want and let Ovation collect it from the database for you.